Op-Ed: Women essential to resolving the water-scarcity conflicts of tomorrow

October 2019

By Claire Harrison

As the earth heats and resources dry up, clean, safe water is often the first thing to disappear. Entire villages are left desertified and destitute. The price of water rises in parallel. When these conditions take place in countries with weak government institutions and low levels of economic development, the outcome is often war. As these conflicts become the new normal, resource-based peacebuilding is slowly seeping into the field of post-conflict reconstruction. The key to success in these efforts lies in addressing the roots of water conflict, as well as understanding who the local stakeholders of a resource crisis are and who the conflict affects most acutely. Too often, conflict, peacebuilding, water and social issues are studied independently. Gender, one of the most critical factors of water peace, is often overlooked.

Women are disproportionately impacted by water scarcity and the conflicts produced by the phenomenon. In many countries, women devote a high proportion of their time to unpaid domestic activities, many of which are water-intensive, such as laundry, cooking and cleaning. As a result, women often shoulder a greater role in day-to-day clean water management and provision, while men are more likely to be responsible for its financing and distribution. Yet it is typically women who are left to deal with the practical implications of a polluted or absent water source, complicating their livelihoods and leaving them vulnerable to the repercussions of falling short in these domestic tasks.

Further, when conflict breaks out, women in water-scarce countries are impacted in ways citizens of water-rich countries fail to consider. In countries where weak government institutions translate to a lack of adequate and equitable water management, there is typically one source of water shared between communities — and often at a great distance from the home. The responsibility of collecting this remote freshwater generally falls on women. When water decreases in availability, this trek becomes longer and consumes more of a woman’s time and energy, leaving her less able to address additional responsibilities and stripping away opportunity to pursue personal means of additional economic output.

Moreover, when conflict erupts, not only do these water sources themselves become sites of violent clashes, but the journey to obtain this water becomes increasingly dangerous. Too often, women are casualties of conflict over resources due to their role as transporters of water. Such violence against women has cascading impacts on a community’s health and resilience to prolonged armed water conflict. Even when attempts at reform are made, or if water sharing is incorporated into interim agreements between parties to a conflict, the design of water systems often prioritizes efficiency and cost at the expense of women and children. Improvements in access to water do not always translate to enhanced protection for women.

It is an impractical exercise to attempt to isolate economic, gender, resource and security goals in conflict resolution. These elements are nested together. It is impossible to address one without the others. However, gender is a critical starting point in addressing potential peaceful resolutions to water conflict. Because women have more day-to-day exposure to the dynamics of water collection and use,  installing women in administrative or advisory positions can help ensure any water intervention takes into account both practical, everyday needs and long-term strategic considerations. When such policies are followed, the impacts are swift and far-reaching: When the first female Ugandan minister of water promoted women to decision-making committees, access to safe water in Uganda increased from 51% to 61% in a mere two years.

The implications are clear: water is the critical resource for life, and, as its scarcity worsens, conflict will inevitably break out. When violent conflict occurs over water, women often bear the brunt of its scarcity and its weaponization. Including women in all steps of peacemaking, from the negotiating table, to strategic advisory teams, to local councils, will be essential to implementing a safe and sensible strategy to resolve and mitigate water conflict. When this is the case, not only will peace be more equitable, it will also be more sustainable.